Joel Chandler Harris Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Most of the Uncle Remus stories follow a similar formula. They begin with a frame narrative, which typically opens in Uncle Remus’s cabin behind the “big house” as he discusses daily affairs with the young white son of Mars’ John and Miss Sally. Usually something that the boy says reminds Uncle Remus of a story about Brer Rabbit or some other “creeturs.” Once the tale is over, Uncle Remus draws a moral lesson for the boy and sends him to bed. The friendship between Uncle Remus and the young boy is worth noting, because in many ways it is Joel Chandler Harris’s own idealized version of black/white relations. Both Uncle Remus and the boy have a strong love for each other and represent the best qualities of both races—Uncle Remus considers himself superior to the domestic servants, and he tells the boy not to play with the “riff-raff” Favers children, the poor white trash of the area. Yet Uncle Remus is not afraid to discipline the young boy subtly, and he sometimes pretends to withhold a tale because the boy has misbehaved during the day (chucking rocks at chickens, for example). Sometimes, borrowing a trick from Brer Rabbit, he has the boy bring him food from the kitchen as a means of appeasement. Uncle Remus also functions as the boy’s teacher, moving him out of the linear chronology of the present and initiating him into the timeless world of the fables—a lesson the young boy sometimes has trouble understanding.

Uncle Remus

In “How Mr. Rabbit Saved His Meat,” for example, the boy objects that Uncle Remus is beginning a tale about Brer Wolf, who has already been killed in an earlier story. In mock exasperation, Uncle Remus remarks that the boy “done grow’d up twel he know mo’n I duz.” The world of the fables, like the patterns of human nature they depict, is atemporal.

The subtle tensions evident between Uncle Remus and the boy are also reflected in the stories themselves. Most of the Uncle Remus stories center on the best-known trickster in all of folklore, Brer Rabbit, and they present a further allegory of black/white relations in the postwar South. A weaker animal in a world of predatory wolves, foxes, bears, and buzzards, Brer Rabbit is forced to depend on his wits and his creativity for survival. His mischievousness disrupts the traditional roles of success within the established work ethic of the other animals, who raise their own “goobers” and catch their own fish, and his trickery allows him to gain power over, and respect from, a stronger race. Yet Brer Rabbit almost never brings his quarrels to open confrontation, and this reflects Harris’s conservatism on racial matters. In “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” for example, it is Brer Rabbit’s aggressive resistance to the lethargic, silent black tar-baby that gets him trapped by Brer Fox, but his smooth and deceptively conciliatory rhetoric allows him to escape. Brer Rabbit rarely openly accuses the other animals of misdeeds; his struggle for respect in the forest is achieved through the subtleties of role-playing and indirect retribution.

Although the Brer Rabbit tales may represent a projection of the black man’s desire for the realignment of the white man’s social structure, they have a dark side to them as well. Sometimes Brer Rabbit’s overbearing brashness can backfire, as in “Mr. Rabbit Meets His Match at Last.” In this tale, Brer Tarrypin and the rabbit agree to a foot race, but the turtle places his wife and children at strategic points around the track and wins the bet, since to Brer Rabbit all turtles look alike. In “Mr. Rabbit Meets His Match Again,” Brer Rabbit tries to cheat Brer Buzzard out of some food, but Brer Buzzard flies him high over the river and threatens to drop him until he admits his trickery. On occasion, Brer Rabbit’s roguery leads to acts of senseless violence. In “Mr. Rabbit Nibbles Up the Butter,” Brer Rabbit steals butter that communally belongs to himself, Brer Fox, and Brer Possum. He then implicates Brer Possum as the thief by smearing some of the butter on him as he sleeps. Declaring his innocence, Brer Possum suggests that all three jump over a brush fire so that the heaviest animal, being full of butter, will be unmasked as the thief. Both the fox and the rabbit make the jump, but Brer Possum dies. In “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox,” the final tale of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Brer Fox offers to show Brer Rabbit how to cut meat from inside a cow without killing it. As soon as they are both inside, however, Brer Rabbit purposefully gives the cow a fatal blow. When the farmer who owns the cow arrives, Brer Rabbit identifies the fox as the thief and the farmer kills him, chopping off his head. Brer Rabbit then takes the head to Mrs. Fox, telling her that it is a fine cut of beef, and Brer Fox’s son soon discovers the head of his father floating in the caldron.

The Brer Rabbit tales carry an allegorical message for both blacks and whites. Harris recognizes that white society must learn to make room for a race that it has historically considered to be weak and inferior, yet he advises blacks to be patient and accept a slow rate of change. Too fast a push for power can lead to violence, and killing the fox only angers his son to revenge. Whatever sympathies Harris might have felt for the underdog position of the Reconstruction black were tempered by his political conservatism, which caused him to share some of the racial biases of his time.

Nights with Uncle Remus

Uncle Remus proved so popular that Harris went on to publish a half-dozen more Uncle Remus volumes in his lifetime. Of these other volumes, his second collection, Nights with Uncle Remus, is the most important and the one that most fully shows the fruits of his labor. In it, Uncle Remus is rounded out much more to become a complete character in his own right, and other characters on the plantation are introduced as storytellers, principally Daddy Jack, a character who speaks in a Sea Island dialect called...

(The entire section is 2476 words.)